Transcript: Leadership in a crisis

An interview with Sue Stockdale, a leadership coach and speaker.

Podcast Episode: Leadership in a crisis


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
KM - Kerry Musselbrook
SS - Sue Stockdale

MD Sue Stockdale works with leaders and organisations to help them achieve exceptional performance. She has an in-depth understanding of motivation and leadership, gleaned from her decades of experience in business, adventure and sport. She offers inspirational presentations, leadership development programmes and coaching. She very kindly gave us her time to talk about leadership during the Covid-19 crisis.

KM Well, Sue, thank you very much for joining us here today, and our conversation topic is leadership in times of crisis, and we’re all kind of experiencing crisis at the moment with COVID-19, which I suppose is quite unusual that we’re experiencing this together, but you work in the area of leadership and we’d love to hear a little bit of your thoughts on this theme. So a good place to start really is just for you to tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.

SS Yeah. Thanks, Kerry. I’ve been in the business of helping leaders for over twenty years now and I work with leaders across a whole wide variety of sectors to really help them achieve more than they imagined was possible and to be more effective, and I do that through coaching, through leadership development programs, recording podcasts and writing books, so really any medium that I can work with them to help them to think about how they can be more effective and improve their performance, and my career began in corporate training and development. So I combined the years of experience there with being a coach for twenty years myself, and also a background in polar expeditions. I led and participated in expeditions in some of the most remote environments of the world and basically if you can’t lead there effectively then you’re dead. So it’s kind of a good environment in which to test your leadership skills.

KM Yes, essential. Okay. So what would you say are some of the challenges for leaders right now?

SS Well I think not only the literature but my own experience would show that at times of crisis as you’re describing right now, that there’s an increased need for transparency, for guidance and for sense-making, to give people a sense of where they are and to have a way of confidence I guess in their leaders, and I think at the most simplest level it’s down to excellent communication skills in a crisis. That’s what makes really all the difference.

KM Yeah ‘cause we’ve heard lots of praise for somebody like Jacinda Ardern at the moment, New Zealand’s leader, about how she’s managed this very well. So she’s been heralded as a great communicator. She’s got a background in communications, hasn’t she? So what would you say makes for an excellent communicator in times of crisis?

SS Well I think it’s about conciseness and it’s about clarity and about calm. We don’t have to necessarily know all the answers, and very often in a situation where there’s a high degree of uncertainty, we don’t have all the answers. So therefore being conscious about what it is you’re saying and what you’re communicating is why conciseness is really important. The calm is about when we’re communicating with somebody else, the message is conveyed just as much in their voice as it is in the words they’re using.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS So how we’re feeling ourselves, being aware of what’s going on in our body, whether our breathing is increased, whether we’re feeling relaxed. All of those things will influence how our voice sounds and it’s those signals that other people pick up and have a sense of whether you’re feeling calm or whether you’re feeling fear.

KM That’s a really interesting point, yeah. Mmmhmm. ‘Cause I’ve picked up in some of the literature the sense of this notion of bounded optimism. Can you tell me something about that?

SS Well how I would interpret that, Kerry, and one of the phrases I use, and it resonates with what you’re describing, is cheerfulness in adversity. So how do we remain optimistic and positive? How do we look for the things that are working as compared to the things that aren’t working, or the things that we can believe in and focus on and control, compared to those that we can’t? So I think it’s about focus. If we think about being optimistic, in any situation there are always two sides to a coin. There’s those that look at the glass of milk and say, “The glass is half empty”, and those that look at it and say, “The glass is half full”.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS I think the bounded optimism comes from saying, “What’s working?”, and a great way to start a team meeting or a conversation with a team is to have even a one-word opener is what I would call it, so just to go around the conversation on Zoom or face-to-face, whatever the medium is, and say, “Just give me one word for how you’re feeling right now”, and no judgement, no comment, to just get a sense, and it’s amazing. One word can tell you an awful lot about a person.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS And it gives everybody a quick snapshot of what’s going on in the room. Another way might be just to say, “So what’s one thing that’s working out well for you just now? What’s one thing that’s good?”, and starting a conversation with a sense of optimism actually does something with the chemicals in our brain. It generates oxytocin, which is about the caring chemical. So we’re generating a sense of calm to other people in how we’re communicating, and that will put their brain at ease and diminish the chances of them feeling fearful and that amygdala, which is the fight or flight response in our brain, being triggered.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS So we want people’s brains to feel calm and having a sense of bounded optimism, and how we’re communicating that will make a big difference to those that we’re leading.

KM This is making me think about things like mindfulness as a kind of practice that is something that might be usefully adopted.

SS Absolutely. Mindfulness and being present. One can apply the skills if you like and practice of mindfulness in many different ways. The way I do it on a moment by moment basis is just to notice my breathing and if I am feeling nervous, just to say, “Okay, I’ll just take a couple of deep breaths and I’ll just try and remain calm”, because the breaths get the oxygen into your brain, which means then actually your brain can function more effectively. So whether it’s a practice in the morning or at night or at some point throughout the day, if you’re feeling stressed, that’s a great way to manage the stress hormones in our bodies.

KM You talked about being optimistic and positive but how do you also acknowledge adversity and the negative?

SS Yeah, that’s a great question, Kerry, because it’s not about being in denial from the challenges or the difficulties that any of us are facing, particularly at the moment. If we can get our brain to be calm, as we’ve just talked about with the mindfulness, then we can actually get into our thinking brain, our executive brain, which can enable us to do much more better quality decision making. We can think through things logically. We don’t get caught up in the emotion. So to be able to then squarely face those challenges and think about finding ways through them, thinking about how we generate innovative and new ideas, how to get around the obstacles that we may be facing, can only really happen if we’re able to manage our emotions and get into that thinking brain, and from there then in a team of course is drawing on the skills of other people in the team. The leader doesn’t have to have all the answers but the leader needs to have some great questions that they can ask their team to bring out their brilliance and solve those challenges together.

KM ‘Cause people like to feel valued, don’t they, and they like to feel that they’re actually being able to solve problems or can contribute to some of the solutions I suppose?

SS I’ll give you an example from one of our arctic expeditions. There were four of us stuck in a tent for two days out on the icecap in Greenland when we encountered a really severe storm, and rather than one person saying, “Well I’m the leader and I’ll make all the decisions here”, each person had a degree of leadership and responsibility for a certain area. So for example, one person was thinking longer term or sort of what if strategies. “If we’re stuck here for a week, how do we ration our food?”, for example. The other person was very much in the here and now. “What can I do right here right now to make sure we stay alive and our tent doesn’t get buried?” Another person actually did go into a little bit of denial and they put their headphones on and listened to music. That was their way of managing stress. So actually, that was the best thing they could do at the moment, is to just not be a hindrance to the other people’s thinking but just to manage their own state in that situation. The other person then was thinking about the communication to the wider world. Once we were able to hopefully survive this challenge, how would we then respond to our sponsors, our families and friends and our loved ones back in the different countries that we came from, to allay their fears and to let them know that we were safe? So I don’t know, just that as an example of thinking about everybody doesn’t have to be doing the same thing but we can play to our strengths in those challenging situations.

KM So I mean I was curious about whether we need a top down, a bottom up or a more distributed kind of leadership in times of crisis? I imagine it’s probably not straightforward?

SS Well I think the thing about the leadership that I’ve certainly seen with some of the leaders I’ve been working with over the last few weeks and months from large and small organisations is that they don’t have all the answers, so they have to be happy enough to not feel they have to be in control of everything. So it’s not about controlling. It’s about seeking order. So if people have a sense of they know who’s doing what or they know who’s going to go and discover something or find out an answer about something, it’s exuding that sense of calm and saying, “Okay, right we don’t know what we’re going to be doing within our role in the next two weeks. Kerry, what can you do to focus on X and discover the answers to that? Sue, what can you do about Y?”, and therefore giving people tasks and ensuring that they then report back to the bigger group and share and have a sense of accountability to what they’re doing. So there may not be one person that’s controlling everything, so that’s the overall normal leader who might be seen at the top of the organisation in a hierarchical kind of structure. Imagine a triangle. If you switch the triangle the other way around, they are more like a servant leader. So they are supporting those around them to carry out various functions, because everybody wants to often do something in a difficult situation.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS So it’s enabling them to play to their strengths but ensuring there’s overall order amongst the potential chaos.

KM And the order is provided by structure or provided by a clear purpose or provided by inbuilt review mechanisms?

SS Yes, yes and yes. I think, coming back to the purpose, you can see an example from a different industry would be some of those Formula 1 teams that switched their manufacturing and production facilities to producing ventilators. So they took their know-how and they changed their purpose if you like for that moment, and it gave them a greater sense of belief in what they were doing and willingness to work long hours to get the job done, because they can see that there’s a bigger purpose to what they’re doing. So purpose is really important and I think also in terms of what would often be known as the agile approach these days, where you’re having short activity lengths of time without a built-in review process after that. So we’ll go away and we’ll spend three days each doing something and then we’ll come back together and we’ll review what’s happened, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, what we need to change. We don’t have time these days in any crisis situation to have a grand plan on a piece of paper because probably the next day it’ll be torn up and there’ll be a different plan because the conditions are changing. So we need to have that fleetness if you like, that agility to be reviewing constantly what’s the data that we do know and what assumptions are we making, and as we get more information or conditions change then are we able to fill in the blanks in the jigsaw and change those assumptions into real data or the other way around?

KM Are there any sort of work cultures that will find adapting to that approach more difficult than others do you think?

SS I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a work culture, that it might be maybe more the environment that people are familiar with. So if organisations have worked in an office-based environment for example and that’s all people have ever known, to then adapt to virtual working if that’s what’s required, that may be a little bit of a challenge, or if people are out and about in their day-to-day job and then they’re no longer able to do that in the same way and the environment that they have to operate in changes, my experience is it’s more about often the environment and the conditions that people are adapting to that’s more challenging than the actual culture, but you may have a different take on that, Kerry?

KM I suppose I’m just conscious of sort of discourses in the world of social services around I suppose being risk averse and being risk positive and things like that, and how processes often take a long time because of that, because of inbuilt checks and balances and having to adapt new ways of working that maybe make people fearful, going back to the fear and managing your emotions and all of that kind of thing.

SS As human beings, yes, some of us will be more risk averse than others, and I guess sometimes the culture that one operates in will have a preference perhaps. So the way the processes and procedures may be designed, there’s a bit more risk aversity built into them for example, so people maybe are more reluctant to be flexible and adapt. I’m constantly heartened by the resourcefulness that people have in terms of crisis though. So I have seen people who traditionally one might think would be fairly risk averse but when they’re called upon to step up in time of crisis, that they are prepared to take more risks than they normally would be comfortable with in order to accomplish that higher purpose. So I think that whilst cultures or organisations may not be designed for quick adaptability and for people to be agile, I’ve seen when we trust in our people, that they can do amazing things.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS And they can step up when required, despite maybe the limitations that exist.

KM That word trust is an interesting one because I’ve noticed again in the literature that people need to feel that they trust their leaders, and that trust I suppose is a two-way street?

SS Yes, I think it is. It’s definitely about walk-the-talk, isn’t it? We see that in broader society, creating rules then leaders not necessarily abiding by them. So I think it’s about how do we live up to the rules if you like, the conduct that we have set for ourselves in our organisation. For example, I certainly have seen that if a leader or anybody for that matter says to me, “I’ll get back to you tomorrow”, and then they don’t and I don’t hear from them for a couple of days, that says more to me about that individual and their commitment and would I trust them, than anything else. So I think sometimes it’s about don’t make a commitment unless you do believe you can actually fulfil it, and if you can’t call me back tomorrow then at least for example get in touch to say, “I haven’t got the answer to that.” So that type of very small activity can really engender and build trust, but it can also diminish it as well if people don’t live up to what they’ve said that they’re going to do.

KM Yeah. So living your values and I suppose it’s about integrity, isn’t it?

SS People will get a sense of whether they trust somebody else or not. There was some work done by Judith Glaser, and she’s done a lot of research on the concept of conversational intelligence, and her work shows that in 0.07 seconds, when we meet somebody it takes our brain less than 1 second to work out whether the person that we’re engaging with, it’s almost like whether we can trust them. Within less than 1 second.

KM Goodness. That’s amazing, isn’t it?

SS It sounds amazing and it does go to show that so much of our reactions to things, we’re not even really aware of them. It’s what’s going on unconsciously within us, and that’s about are we smiling. A simple thing again for a leader to engage with somebody on a Zoom call these days if we’re meeting people virtually rather than face-to-face, is do we show up and smile, generating a sense of warmth in our conversation, or are we showing up and exuding a sense of stress, which immediately puts the other person’s brain into distrust and thinking, “Why is that person stressed? Is it me? Have I done something?” Whatever might be going on in their head, all of a sudden there’s a different sense of engagement. So actually how one shows up, and back to this idea of thinking about how you’re embodying a sense of trust, is very important in particularly virtual communications as well as face-to-face.

KM I’ve got a question here, thinking ahead, around future leaders. So what’s needed to nurture and develop future leaders?

SS There’s another interesting question, Kerry. When you say future leaders, I’m just interested to clarify, would you mean people that have got the potential to step up to a more senior position in the future, and it’s about how we’re going to nurture that talent and capability to develop them into a future leadership role?

KM I guess so. I mean the Scottish social services have a leadership strategy, which is about fostering leadership at all levels, encouraging people to step up, but also knowing when to step back when needed and to encourage system leadership for example. So there is the push to foster leadership but in listening to you it’s also making me think about another interesting question. What’s the difference between say management and leadership? So what is true leadership and who can embody it I suppose maybe are better questions?

SS I think you’ve given me some more clarity about what we’re getting at here, Kerry. For me, the difference between management and leadership, and I see a lot of it with the clients that I coach, is somebody who say has been a manager and then is promoted to a leadership role often can struggle in the short term. When they’re in the management position they’ve got a responsibility for productivity and results, so their job is really about making things happen, and a lot of the time when they are making things happen it’s down to them to make things happen. They might be problem solving or carrying out activities in the day-to-day to deliver those results, but moving to leadership requires a flex in mind-set and it’s about delivering results through others. So it’s really about enablement. No longer does the leader have to do so much, but they have to set the vision, set that purpose and then hold people accountable, and then they have to support them with their performance and deliver the results through those people. It’s almost like if you have a child and you’re a parent, you don’t necessarily, as in the old days, tie your children’s shoelaces for them -when they had shoelaces - but to be enabling your child to develop themselves to use those skills, you would show them how to do it once perhaps and then encourage them every time after that to learn how to tie their own shoelaces, and that’s really what the role of a leader is, to be able to set the context for people that they’re leading, give them a clear sense of responsibility, show them where the boundaries are in where they’re operating and then be supportive and encouraging, almost behaving like a leader coach, asking them questions, getting them to think for themselves. That’s where the sense of value in a leader comes. What I often find is that people are still trying to do things when they are in that leadership capacity. They haven’t in a way learned how to let go and trust those that they are leading to get on with the job. It’s just a really subtle mind-set shift but it makes a huge difference. Does that answer your question a bit more?

KM It does. It does, yeah. That’s a very good answer. Last but not least, Sue, is there any key advice, any key message that you would want to send to everyone out there that’s struggling in these difficult times but also wanting to lead to the best of their ability?

SS I think the important thing is to lead yourself well, first of all. So it really starts with self. If you’re in a sense of panic and fear and uncertainty, then how do you find a way to recognise what you are still in control of and be prepared to let the other things go? We can’t change what we’re not responsible for, so how do we then accept that that is not within our control and just focus on what we are in control of? Sometimes that’s just our thoughts really, in a sense of a situation that’s rapidly changing. I can choose my attitude. So it might be as simple as getting up in the morning and first of all thinking, “What am I grateful for today? What’s good? What’s positive about today?” That way it creates the right mind-set for me to be in a positive frame of mind when I start my day. That’s leading myself well, and then if there’s a lot of uncertainty I can always be back to keeping just focussing on what I’m in control of, and I’m in control of keeping calm and remaining responsible for how I show up.

KM Mmmhmm.

SS So I know that might sound like a very simple thing but I think in order to be able to lead others effectively it does start with one’s self, just like when we used to go on aeroplanes the staff on the aeroplane would always say, “When the oxygen masks drop down, put your own oxygen mask on first before that of your children.”

KM Yeah.

SS It’s exactly the same here in this time of crisis. You have to attend to yourself first and then once you’re feeling calm and able to cope in a situation, then you’re much more able to lead other people effectively, and part of that might just be finding somebody, having a family member or a friend or a close confidant that you can just have a conversation with and sometimes just offload so that you’ve expressed your frustration and your emotion and you’re able to then show up in a different way as a leader.

KM Yeah and that’s part of that whole self-care package, isn’t it, that you really need to adapt yourself?

SS Yeah.

KM Okay. Well I would like to say thank you very much for sharing your wisdom. It’s been a really enjoyable chat and enjoy the rest of your day, Sue. Thank you.

SS Thanks very much, Kerry.

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